A number of colleges have recently released documents outlining to students what life will be like upon return to Cambridge. Given the Covid-flexing occurring at a national level, whereby nations compete to have the strictest measures in place, it is unsurprising that colleges have followed suit, and in many cases gone over and above the laws passed by the government. Trinity students are being threatened with eviction should they dare to entertain guests, and Trinity Hall have not only forbidden overnight guests on the premises: they have forbidden their students from staying overnight anywhere else too! How they are going to enforce these rules is an interesting question. Colleges are legislating like they are some sort of police-state, but unless porters are being secretly trained by the KGB, they thankfully lack the corresponding means of enforcement. Whether to follow the rules will largely be up to us. Should we?
Some rules are self-evidently sensible. Banning large, packed gatherings like raves seems entirely fair. But I do question whether any authority, be it a college or a government, can legitimately enforce celibacy on an unwilling group of people. We know why they have done so: safety is paramount, and lives are at stake. Of course, I sympathise; all lives are precious. But there is a part of me that insists there are also other things, which make life precious. One of these is the freedom to partake in adult relationships, and to enjoy the physical intimacy that they involve. But we might also include the joys of listening to music with other people, or representing your college or university in sports. How do we weigh up protecting life, with protecting what makes it worth living? Britons of the past undoubtedly faced a similar decision when Nazi Germany tried to invade in the Second World War. Had the UK surrendered, many British lives might have been saved. 1542 heroic British servicemen lost their lives in the Battle of Britain. But then, what value could they have attached to life, if it had to be lived under crushing Nazi oppression? If you think that fighting to defend the UK was the right decision, you at least in principle accept that sometimes, saving a way of life is more important than saving life.
This doesn’t save us from a difficult conversation about where the line is drawn. It would be irresponsible to attend large gatherings, or to be casual about social distancing in our day-to-day lives. The national conversation has largely attempted to paint students as raving, shagging sesh-gremlins, to the detriment of reasonable discussions about what kind of moderate contact might be acceptable for one of the safest demographics in the country. It is difficult to draw a line anyway; people have different needs and will miss different things. The Conservative part of me thinks individuals are generally kind-hearted and responsible, and would be best off being trusted to make their own decisions.
Whether intrusive measures like lockdown are saving lives at all is debatable. The British Heart Foundation released figures after 100 days of lockdown revealing that 28,000 heart procedures had been postponed, endangering every single individual who needs treatment. Cancer Research estimates that 2.4 million cancer screenings that should have happened didn’t, meaning an estimated 23,000 people with cancer aren’t being treated. This is not to mention the effect lockdown has had on mental health: amongst the elderly, suicides have increased by 600%. The sad, sad truth of the matter is that in all likelihood, had the fear of Covid-19 been less pronounced, and the British public more willing to risk catching it, far fewer people overall would likely be in danger.1
Living involves taking risks. Part of being an adult is learning to cope with this fact, understanding that risks are part of life but need not control it. It is also a part of life that some things, like freedom, are worth risking a great deal for. As I tried to show in referencing the Battle of Britain, the English-speaking world has historically taken this attitude, choosing dangerous, meaningful liberty over empty security. And we are immensely richer, safer, and happier for their having done so. Colleges can play dictator all they want: students will continue to use their common sense, and should flout those rules that rob life of its value.
1 These shocking statistics and more can be found in an article in the Independent, written to mark 100 days of lockdown in the UK: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/coronavirus-lockdown-suicide-mental-health-nhs-boris-johnson-a9594091.html